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Alf McCreary: Despite our obvious problems, there is plenty for everybody to be grateful for

By Alf McCreary ·

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Changing times: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Grand Master Edward Stevenson at the Orange Order headquarters and museum

Now that the holiday rush is on, there will be an opportunity for many people to perhaps see Northern Ireland in a slightly different way when they return home.

Basically we are warm-hearted people, though that does not apply to certain individuals in politics and the churches.

We are over-critical of one another inside and outside the churches, and we are masters at faint praise.

Many years ago I interviewed a person who had become a major entertainment star, but I also heard an older man say "I knew the Da when he had no backside in his trousers".

It is a great Biblical commandment to be grateful, and in that spirit I am going to give thanks for a number of things which have delighted me during this exceptional summer.

First of all the scenery of Northern Ireland is outstanding in its beauty and variety, and we should never take it for granted.

In early May I visited Ballintoy Harbour on a sunny morning, and I was amazed by the number of overseas visitors and large numbers of coaches. I remember Ballintoy not so long ago as equally beautiful and windswept, but empty.

All summer the cruise ships are bringing thousands of visitors to Northern Ireland, and they are spending a great deal to help our local economy.

This week I have been on board the beautiful USA liner Royal Princess en route from Dublin to give a lecture on Belfast Harbour, and there is a great interest in Northern Ireland and the Republic from visitors from all over the world.

Politically there seems little in Northern Ireland to cheer any of us, but is it possible to detect small but important changes, at a grassroots level?

Take, for example, last week's meeting at Ballynafeigh Orange Hall, where the local lodge welcomed in members of the Bredagh GAA club.

It was poignant to hear one GAA man say how pleased he was to be invited, as he had passed the hall many times and has wondered what it was like inside.

At the top level, the Orange Order welcomed the Taioseach Leo Varadkar to Belfast recently, and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonnell tried to follow this up by suggesting that she would attend a Twelfth demonstration, if invited. She received a churlish reply.

However, she too reverted to Sinn Fein form by criticising the new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, the Deputy PSNI Chief Constable, even before he had time to take up the post. You could say that this was merely to please the hard-line Shinners, or perhaps her political slip was really showing. Yet the fact of his appointment shows that change is in the air, and certainly in the Republic.

Back in the North you could argue that Arlene Foster's recent outreach to the GAA, Muslims and the LGBT community was nothing more than a political stunt, but you could also take the view that she was sincere, and deserves praise for doing so.

I am also thankful that we have the opportunity to speak our minds in public, more or less according to what you judge to be going on in the Presbyterian Church, though in this month's Presbyterian Herald there are some strong letters of dissent.

More widely too there have been some decidedly un-Christian letters from men of the cloth and laity, but they too have the right to hold their views.

On a personal level, I am grateful for many things, including recently the kindness from NHS doctors and other staff who do their very best in often difficult circumstances. We criticise the NHS so much, but on its 70th birthday we should be grateful too.

I am also grateful that so many good people across the theological spectrum here are still involved in their churches. I also recognise and respect the very many outside the churches who are deeply spiritual, free-thinking and trying to work it out for themselves.

They have every right to do so.

Not long ago a friend said to me: "Never let a priest, or a minister, or a creed, or a dogma or even a Church itself get between you and your understanding and worship of God."

Not long ago a friend said to me: "Never let a priest, or a minister, or a creed, or a dogma or even a Church itself get between you and your understanding and worship of God."

That is wise advice for which I am constantly grateful.

I reckon that there is much for which you too can be grateful, if you take time to really think about it.

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Changing times: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Grand Master Edward Stevenson at the Orange Order headquarters and museum